Archive for December, 2009

(Not) flying with American Airlines…

Monday, December 21st, 2009

So we’re flying to the UK for the holidays, and had booked with American as Virgin’s prices had gone up a little too much at the last minute. We left Cambridge on Saturday afternoon and got to the airport in time for our flight down to New York, from where we would fly out to London. There was some bad weather coming, so they were keen to leave prompty.

We left the gate at Logan, began taxiing, and then returned to the gate as we were “overweight” (the plane was half full) and needed to shed some weight “due to the bad weather” (translation: we don’t know how we’re going to get there so just ignore the fuel truck outside putting more fuel into the plane discretely). We did take off not much later than we were supposed to, and then played a game of Turbulance!(TM) as we tried the fun game of flying towards a ‘nor easter storm coming up the Eastern seaboard. Arriving in New York before much of the bad weather hit, we waited around for a couple of hours for a flight. So far American’s staff had behaved reasonably, and had even understood both the words “courteous”, and even “professional”.

The next flight was the fun part. We were supposed to leave at 19:10 for London. But the huge frigging snow storm getting going outside, tending toward blizzard conditions had other ideas in mind. We almost left the gate, but then sat (on the plane) at the gate for a total of around 5 hours while various airport officials closed down parts of the airport and the situation went from bad to worse. Airlines can’t do anything about the weather, but American also offered the bonus of the most surly, sassy New York flight crew you’re likely to meet.

Not only did this flight crew not care (being rude from the moment I got on board, including a look of obvious disdain when I asked after the veggie meal they had forgotten to provide yet again) but they regularly failed to make any announcements as to the flight’s progress (or lack thereof) leaving us to use various phone “apps” to know what was happening. Every 30 minutes or so, various people would get text alerts about another delay, culminating in notifications of a canceled flight about an hour before they decided to officially tell us. Meanwhile, we’re sat on the plane. The cabin crew did decide to feed us eventually (for which I am grateful), although they of course had no veggie options and weren’t willing to find any alternative to a couple of pieces of bread and a dessert.

After the flight was officially canceled a bit before midnight, we got off the plane and headed back into the terminal, where a total of one person from American Airlines met us and held up a handwritten sign with an “800″ number on it. They took some enjoyment in not being able to offer anything other than this, saying we should call or stand in line in the ticket hall. We decided, like most others, to do both of these things, and joined a line of literally a thousand people in the ticket hall of JFK terminal 8, to speak with the one (or perhaps two) members of AA staff able to help. I felt sorry for some of the foreign travelers who didn’t really understand that AA has no legal liability under bad weather to provide you with any level of service at all, and that they particularly enjoy rubbing this in your face as much as possible when it happens. They also had no idea what to do about the large numbers of people who had handed in I94 forms, or the person who’s visa was/or had expired and was en route to an embassy. Bad weather happens, and it’s nobody’s fault, but the worst possible customer service from bitter airline staff isn’t a requirement.

A little over an hour after making my second call to American Airlines (all the while standing in the same line) I got through to a human being. I was told there were no flights to London we could rebook on until about 4 days later, although I could fly on a flight from Boston in the morning. We met some other travelers in the same situation, and for a while were thinking of renting an SUV and driving all night to get back to Boston for the only flight. Even the one or two AA people wondering around the airport (who could not help, but seemed to be mostly surveying the little people) said this was a suicidal idea and that we should call back and rebook on the flight 4 days later on. I waited on the phone for 2 more hours (while still standing in the same line, that had gotten a little shorter, but which was now waiting for a closed AA counter that wouldn’t re-open for several more hours) to speak with another human being about my options.

As we stood in line with thousands of others, it seemed apparant that either JFK or AA – or both perhaps – had little in the way of any real emergency planning in place ahead of time. People were sleeping on the ticket stands, on the baggage belts, anywhere they could lie down (the baggage was ten feet from the gate inside the plane but would take a number of hours to retreive). There was very little in the way of any food available and no hot beverages. There were kids screaming, there were people watching their holiday plans become ruined around them, and all the while there were too few staff even for a regular non-busy day. Meanwhile, I was holding with American Airlines “800″ number, listening to the music and being told I could also go online [hint to AA: when there is some giant problem and thousands are holding, why not remove the most demoralizing messages?] to get various useless information.

That’s when Andre answered. He was the only person at American Airlines who was curteous, and pleasant to us in the whole time our of experience (and for which I told him I will write personally to the management at AA praising him). Not only was he sympathetic (after likely working with countless others for the past few hours), but he went and checked for real alternative options we could actually use, and used them. He found a flight from Boston on the Monday morning for both us and the British Virgin Islands family with two young children we had offered to help, and although there was no way they could fly us to Boston, there was a sense of a possibility to still make it over for the holidays. We went on a game of bag hunting (we found ours, but our travel friends didn’t manage to find one of theirs) amongst the large number of people wondering around or sleeping in the baggage hall and then figured out a plan for getting the train back up to Boston for the alternative flight.

Not only had the blizzard knocked out the airport for a while, but it had also taken out a number of the Airtrain cars in their system at JFK, resulting in a very reduced service where the doors could become stuck (and for which a staff member was carrying a WD-40-like product). We had a fun time getting to Jamaica station and had hoped to take the Long Island Railroad into Penn. station for a train to Boston, but had to change to the subway instead as the former wasn’t really operating. We got to Penn station a couple of hours after leaving JFK, and booked tickets for the 9am train to Boston. Amtrak was canceling trains, but they did manage to run the 9am train – only an hour later than that. We got back to Boston South Station around 14:30 and headed home for the first shower and real sleep in a day. We’ll try the whole thing again in another few hours.

I don’t blame the blizzard conditions for causing havoc. Most of the passengers understood that these things happen and we can only do our best in such circumstances. But American Airlines seem to have no procedure in place to handle emergencies at JFK. They also seem to have a training program intended to suck the humanity and common decency out of their New York based staff. As much as possible, they tried at every turn to be surly and rude (or a combination) rather than being helpful. I’m sure it was a stressful situation, but they get worse than a failing grade for even basic customer service in a situation for which they should have had some contingency plan in place, and the utter contempt and rudeness of their staff towards most of their passengers is some of the most disgracefully disgusting stuff I have seen in years of travelling. I will write to their CEO in a few days, demanding an explanation.